What is a collaborative organisation, anyway?

By Angela Ashenden posted 04-16-2013 09:06


Over the last few years, I've spent a lot of time writing and talking about the benefits of collaboration and the technology to support collaboration in its many forms. What has become clear during that time is just how nebulous and confusing the term "collaboration" is. But while it's easy to get caught up in defining what "collaboration" itself actually means, I've come to realise that its not necessarily the act of collaborating that needs defining, but what this means in the context of an organisation that is looking to be more collaborative. So perhaps the question should be - What does a collaborative organisation look like?


It is highly unlikely that there is no collaboration taking place in your organisation at present – people are no doubt talking to each other in the office or on the phone, sitting in meetings to discuss particular activities or events, or working together on particular projects or documents, for example. However, evidence of anecdotal collaboration such as this is not the same as being a collaborative organisation; this suggests an underlying culture of collaboration which drives all activity within the organisation. In real terms, I think there are three important characteristics that help to define a collaborative organisation:

  1. A networked and non-hierarchical organisation structure
  2. A culture of openness, honesty and trust
  3. An engaged and valued workforce.

A networked and non-hierarchical organisation structure

A collaborative organisation is typically the antithesis of the “traditional” command-and-control organisation where there is a rigid hierarchy of roles and management authority. Instead, the organisation structure is much more fluid and “flat”, with individuals given greater responsibility to make decisions appropriate to their role and the task concerned, without the bottlenecks caused by layers of management approvals and red tape. Teams are defined not by their position within the organisation, but by what they are trying to achieve – whether this is a specific project or an on-going business process – and so tend to be more transient, with teams made up of a collection of different roles required to complete the task or tasks, rather than simply a group of peers of the same role, for example. Similarly, individuals are defined not by their role, their seniority, or even their team, but by the set of skills, knowledge and experience they can contribute to a particular task, discussion or activity.


Rather than layers of “management” which focus on controlling behaviour and driving activity, there is an emphasis on providing leadership – setting targets for individuals and teams, and then providing the appropriate motivation and support to help them achieve those targets. One of the benefits of less-structured, non-hierarchical collaborative working environments is that new ideas can be executed more quickly, enabling the organisation to respond rapidly to competitive challenges or market pressures. New projects and teams can get up and running quickly, without the need for major reorganisation, creating new dynamics within the business. Communication is also much faster, with central news able to reach individuals directly, rather than being filtered through management, and information able to flow more easily throughout the organisation via a peer-to-peer channel.


A culture of openness, honesty and trust

In a collaborative organisation, every individual has a voice, and is encouraged to express their opinion without fear of stepping on the toes of more senior people. This is less about people being given a forum to publicly criticise their peers, managers or leaders, but about creating an environment where openness, sharing and discussion is central to everything that takes place, be that the announcement or definition of a new strategy or direction for the company, a proposed change to a process in a particular part of the business, or simply an event, news item or suggestion at a local level. This does not mean to say that every activity, every decision within a collaborative organisation is necessarily always achieved collaboratively, but that there is a common bond of trust between peers, between leaders and employees, so that there is no sense of threat or inconvenience from inviting others to contribute an opinion, or provide feedback, and people are confident and willing to do so when asked.


An engaged and valued workforce

In a collaborative organisation, employees are given greater responsibility, and are given the opportunity to voice their opinion, to engage with peers and managers and – in so doing – have a say in the way things are done and the direction the company is taking. The result is a workforce that is much more interested in the organisation’s fortunes, that cares whether or not the company achieves its goals, and that feels a collective sense of ownership and involvement in the process of achieving those goals. This empowered workforce has much greater loyalty to the organisation as a result, and so is less likely to churn frequently as individuals seek to gain greater levels of responsibility, or find an employer who better values their commitment.


Clearly, while most organisations can show evidence of some collaborative behaviour, the majority have some way to go before they can honestly say they check all three of these boxes. It's a long, arduous journey in some cases, but those who have done it confirm it is worth the effort in the long run.


If you are starting out on your own collaboration journey, check out my latest free reports on How to build a collaborative culture?

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